Academics v. social skills: The case of disappearing recess

Circa 1995. A kindergartener skips up to school, hangs up their jacket in their cubby. Practices reading or math with their teacher. Checks on the eggs the class is hatching. Plays in the sandbox. Has lunch. Goes to recess. Naptime. For half day students, heads home.
This scenario would sound like a fairy tale to most of Dallas’s current kindergarteners and their families. While things like nap time and recess used to be a typical part of the school day, especially for younger students, they have largely gone by the wayside as schools have tried to rearrange the school day to fit in more instruction. However, recent studies (including a survey specific to Dallas ISD incoming kindergarten students) has found that students are not only lacking in academic skills, but many students come to school unprepared socially.
Recess is a key time for developing social skills, and can have other impacts such as improving general school culture. In a recently published article entitled “Playing Fair: The Contribution of High-Functioning Recess to Overall School Climate in Low-income Elementary Schools” high-functioning recess is correlated with a positive school environment. The study authors define high-functioning recess as a recess that supports students by offering optional activities and and emphasizing pro-social skills development. The schools in the study were supported with a Playworks coach who assisted teachers during the recess period and students reportedly took the skills they were taught on the playground back into the classroom, improving school culture and morale.
Despite the positive associations with recess and the importance of developing social skills, recess is disappearing from many school campuses across the country. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, while recess time began decreasing in the 1980s the trend accelerated with the passage of No Child Left Behind and the increasing emphasis on test scores. Some districts have a policy regarding recess, and others allow principals or teachers to make the call as to whether a class has recess. A 2003 nationwide survey of 1st through 5th grade students found that 21 percent of students did not have recess. 44 percent of students living below the poverty line did not have recess. In Dallas ISD specifically, a post by former superintendent Mike Miles in January explained that recess time is determined at each school individually. 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon is recommended, and “the State requires at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise every day.” However, on at least one campus, teachers rarely felt they had the time to send their classes outside; a class might have gym once or twice a week and recess only in the spring once testing ended, making those recommendations seem a bit optimistic.
What do you think? Is recess a valuable use of student time? Is there recess in your school district?
Ellen Miller
Ellen Miller
missellenmiller@gmail.com

<p>Ellen Miller is currently a recruiter with Urban Teachers, an educator preparation program committed to placing effective teachers in high needs schools for four years. Recently, as the lead site coordinator at a Dallas ISD elementary school she facilitates the day-to-day operations of a volunteer based tutoring center that serves 55 students, managing volunteers, tutoring students and building school relationships. She has a journalism and education background and is available for consulting.</p>

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  • Brian Cleary

    Recess is a rich environment for the development of both social emotional skills and simply as a cognitive break. For many schools, especially those in high poverty area, is that recess is also the peak time for behavior issues to arise. Naturally enough, when the structure is removed those students in greatest need of those supports fall apart. Playworks does an exceptional job of re framing recess into an environment that supports all students while also offering them the “brain break” they need. The question left unspoken however is how to we offer those “recess and real life skills to school without access to the costly experts at Playworks.